First They Killed My Father

first they killed my father First They Killed My Father  (2017)    Netflix/Drama    RT: 136 minutes    No MPAA rating (violence, brutality, disturbing images)    Director: Angelina Jolie    Screenplay: Loung Ung and Angelina Jolie    Music: Marco Beltrami    Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle    Release date: September 15, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata, Mun Kimhak, Heng Dara, Khoun Sothea, Sarun Nika, Run Malyna, Oun Srey Neang.      Spoken in Khmer w/English subtitles


 I don’t often use the term “harrowing” to describe films. It’s reserved only for those select films that allow audiences to experience, as closely as the medium allows without actually putting them there, nightmarish situations right alongside the characters. The short list includes The Killing Fields, Platoon, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and now, First They Killed My Father. Based on the memoir by Loung Ung, it’s one of those films you watch in a state of disbelief. What the bloody hell? How could such a thing ever happen? How can some people be so evil? OMG, that’s horrible! These are the thoughts that crossed my mind several times as I watched First They Killed My Father. I haven’t felt this horrified since watching Schindler’s List almost a quarter-century ago.

First-They-Killed-My-Father-Poster First They Killed My Father is directed by actress-humanitarian Angelina Jolie whose last effort was the 2015 vanity project By the Sea co-starring soon-to-be ex-hubby Brad Pitt. It’s bad but I won’t hold it against Jolie; every filmmaker gets one pass. First They Killed My Father is a more-than-adequate make-up assignment. It’s her finest work since her inaugural effort In the Land of Blood and Honey. Like the 2011 Bosnian War drama, Jolie avoids the usual trappings of big studio projects. There are no big-name stars. In fact, there are no American actors at all. The cast is comprised of Cambodian actors and non-actors. It’s spoken in Khmer with English subtitles. Most notably, the story is told through the eyes of a Cambodian child rather than some well-meaning white person playing noble hero and savior. It’s as far from a Hollywood movie (in spirit and geography) as you can get. It’s also superior work.

 The opening is a montage of news clips of President Nixon denying a secret war in Cambodia and footage of the bombings that created a state of chaos in the country in the final years of the Vietnam War. From the ashes rose the Khmer Rouge who brutally enforced the will of Communist dictator Pol Pot. He claimed that he wanted to create a utopian society but his real goal was the systematic genocide of the Cambodian people. For four years, Cambodians were forced to live in work camps where they grew crops to feed the soldiers fighting on the front lines. They were routinely beaten, abused, starved and made to suffer. They lived in constant fear of being sent to re-education camps or executed for so-called crimes against the Angkar (aka The Communist Party of Kampuchea). It’s estimated that up to three million people were killed during Pol Pot’s regime (1975-79).

 The horrific events are seen through the eyes of Loung Ung (Moch) who we first meet as a happy five-year-old living a comfortable, peaceful existence with her bourgeois family in Phnom Penh. Everything changes the day the Khmer Rouge comes rolling into town. Armed soldiers forced families to leave town with the promise that they would be allowed to return in three days time. Loung and her family are gradually stripped of all their personal possessions and sent to a labor camp where they’re constantly bombarded with Communist dogma. The next few years are sad ones marked by hunger, fear, violence and loss.

 For starters, I do believe a star has been born in the form of young Sareum Srey Moch. First They Killed My Father is her debut and she totally knocks it out of the park. Her performance is completely natural and unforced. Loung is young enough that she easily adapts to any new situation and accepts it as the new norm. She’s too young to fully comprehend what’s going on around her and what’s happening to her family. When somebody smiles at her, she smiles back. It’s what kids do. Never mind that the adult doing the smiling might harm her or her family. Over the course of the movie, Loung witnesses some truly terrible things. At one point, she’s taken to another camp where she’s trained to be a Khmer Rouge soldier. She learns to do things- e.g. plant land mines, fire an AK-47 and kill- no child should ever know how to do. In the worst of times, she detaches herself emotionally and just goes through the motions as a means of survival. It’s one of the strongest performances I’ve ever seen from a child, let alone one that never stepped in front of a camera before.

 Not every actor is suited for the director’s chair but I think Jolie is. So far she’s directed four movies. She has two great ones (In the Land of Blood and Honey, First They Killed My Father), one good one (Unbroken) and one dud (By the Sea). Not too shabby, I’d say. She’s at her best when the subject matter is a cause that’s close to her heart. She’s very passionate about helping the victims of war-torn countries and Cambodia certainly was one in the latter half of the 70s. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve; Jolie puts hers on display in films like First They Killed My Father. This movie is emotionally wrenching at, at times, difficult to watch.

 From an artistic standpoint, First They Killed My Father also scores high. Loung occasionally flashes back to more carefree times playing with her siblings and being cared for by her loving parents. These scenes are swathed in gorgeous colors and glowing light indicative of happy memories. In the present-day scenes, the world appears to have been robbed of all color and hope. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle presents things in a stark, straightforward manner. It’s not overstylized or overedited to the point of confusion. He captures the action in such a way that easily communicates anxiety and dread without trying to generate excitement like it was an action movie. Even the combat scenes at the end, when the Vietnamese show up to liberate the country, are done for thrills or excitement. It’s all part of the same nightmare with little Loung at the center.

 Like the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph, First They Killed My Father is a movie that I’m not likely to visit again anytime soon (if at all). It’s an outstanding movie but simply too hard to watch. It’s sad, disturbing and unsettling. The ending is the final straw. It’s incredibly moving; there won’t be a dry eye in the house when the lights go up. Jolie perfectly filters the events through the prism of a child’s perspective. Movies that do this- e.g. Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory- make you see things in a different light. It increases the horror because the human subject doesn’t understand the causes behind it. It is what it is and it’s bad. I like how Jolie makes it about the Khmer and not about her ego (a trap many filmmakers fall victim to). The credits are shown simultaneously in Khmer and English with the former first and the latter last. Every single move she makes in First They Killed My Father is the right move. Not too many films accomplish a feat like that. Good job, Angelina. 

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